Jim Nantz: The View From Pebble Beach
Avoiding football is a gimme
Avoiding football is a gimme.
As we all know, the concept of the gimme putt is anathema to the PGA Tour. When the modernised Rules of Golf are rolled out in 2019, you will not find a provision stating that tap-ins will henceforth be considered good. Nothing in golf is certain, especially on the PGA Tour. ▶ But that’s about to change. If there’s one thing I see as an absolute lock, it’s that the success of the revamped 2019 PGA Tour schedule—the dates of the FedEx Cup playoffs and season-ending Tour Championship especially—is going to be, for myriad reasons, a gimme.
There are a bunch of notable changes in the tour’s new universe, not the least of which are the move of the Players Championship back to March and the PGA Championship from August to May. The average fan can’t help but focus attention there, because they’re huge events. But allow me to focus on the end game— the playoffs— which will conclude the last weekend of August.
The Tour Championship traditionally ended the third Sunday in September, which in a television context put it dead up against the NFL national doubleheader games aired on CBS or Fox. There’s no denying the NFL is America’s favourite television sport. For example, the 2018 Super Bowl produced a Nielsen household rating of 43.1, and the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier that same Sunday drew what is considered a respectable 2.5. Even high-profile golf events don’t produce numbers that come close to the mighty NFL. The memorable Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in 2016 produced a 2.7, and in 2014, when it was broadcast from Scotland and aired early in the day here in the United States, a 1.6.
And what happens when golf regularly goes head-to-head with the NFL? Over the past 10 years, the late NFL game on Tour Championship Sunday has dominated the golf by a whopping 13.4 to 1.7. The disparity is huge. One of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s stated goals when he took over for Tim Finchem in 2017 was to bring the PGA Tour season to an earlier close to prevent the conflict and increase golf viewership. With each rating point equaling upward of a million homes, it’s easy to see why it matters.
It’s that new August date that steers away from football that will set up game-changing events. That 1.7 rating for the Tour Championship and the playoff events leading into it should instantly go up. To what extent is to be seen, but it’s inevitable and will be in the range of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of households. That, in turn, means delivering more eyes to FedEx, the tour’s biggest sponsor. The playoff events will become much more valuable. Incentive for players to make it to the postseason will grow stronger.
That’s not all. With the playoffs arriving earlier, the heart of the PGA Tour schedule, which essentially begins at the start of the calendar year and then gains momentum at Torrey Pines with mainstream network coverage, grows more condensed. The number of tournaments from Torrey to the Tour Championship goes from 34 to 31. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s almost a 10-percent reduction. These tournaments naturally become a greater focal point for top players. Their gravitas grows. There’s greater drama and more storylines. The quality of the golf gets even better.
Have you noticed that as purse sizes increase, money as a measuring stick recedes? I’ve realised this already—more fans reference the FedEx Cup points standings and World Golf Rankings than they do the money list. That’s exactly what the tour wants. The more condensed central schedule also makes the PGA Tour easier to follow. All because of that brilliant schedule adjustment.
Hopefully these types of sea changes are not over. There’s room to adjust the FedEx Cup playoffs to make them even more coherent, suspenseful and dramatic. For example, I’ve always viewed as curious the situation that unfolded last year, when Xander Schauffele won the Tour Championship but didn’t win the FedEx Cup (that went to Justin Thomas). How to cure that quirk? What if—and I’m just musing here—you had the top-five finishers from the Tour Championship advance to a two- or three-hole shootout later that afternoon, the winner landing that $10 million prize? Kind of like the showcase round on “The Price Is Right.” Or handicap the players by strokes so that the frontrunner going into the last event has the lead at the start of the tournament, and the player in 30th position starts a predetermined number of shots back.
These ideas are far from a gimme. But at the pace the PGA Tour is adapting to the modern sports landscape, I see innovations like the schedule change winding up stonedead to the hole.